Album Review


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Destroyer: Kaputt
Destroyer
Kaputt

I went to college with a girl who loved Dan Bejar in the same way that a great many more people love Madonna or Michael Jackson. Once at a party at her apartment I noticed a hand-drawn picture of Mr. Destroyer pinned to her bedroom door. She was thrilled that I even recognized him and we spent a good portion of the night talking through the Bejar catalogue (not just the Destroyer stuff, which we both agreed was best, but also his work with Swan Lake and the New Pornographers), formidable then and only more so today. This girl was one of the Destroyer disciples, and she was far from being alone: Bejar's appeal, from his indefatigable prolificacy to his decentered and endlessly interpretable narratives, is readily cultic. He has the type of fans who curate a Wiki just to decode his dense, allusive lyrics, then pay them wry homage with a drinking game.

Perhaps one day Bejar will cut an album for the unconverted, but Kaputt is not that album. The procession of female characters continues, with "Bay of Bigs (Detail)" alone introducing us to Magnolia with a heart made of wood, Christine White (whose mention sends Bejar into rages), and "Nancy, in a state of crisis, on a cloud." If that sounds opaque, you may be better off not knowing that the song also addresses the world as a "fucking explosion that turns us around," love as "a political beast with jaws for a mouth," and the listener as a traveler seeking "the conclusion of the world's unutterable secret." Musically, the song progresses from Eno-indebted minimalism to new wave to the type of ramshackle acoustic pop that launched Bejar's career on City of Daughters.

Destroyer's fascinating power is best captured by songs like this, which so nearly succumb to their overwrought poetry, but which nonetheless hit hardest where they ought to be most obtuse. The business about the traveler and the unutterable secret? It arrives on a surge of handclaps and acoustic guitar chords and manages to sound, how else to say, awesome. Then Bejar whispers, "...and you shut your mouth," at which point the guitar vanishes and the song explores more ethereal sounds, at least for the next 30 seconds or so.

Not all of Kaputt is so dynamic, and many of the songs require a few listens before they begin to assert their individual identities. But Kaputt does contain riches to rival the previous highpoints in the Destroyer canon. There's the alluring "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker," which runs eight minutes long and drifts from proggy pastoral to sax-driven disco while Bejar references Ralph Ellison and chases the North Star. And "Savage Night at the Opera," which blends New Order's synth-pop textures with guitar leads that could've been lifted from Surfer Rosa, where Bejar's refrain of "I heard your record, it's all right" comes off as an unlikely expression of emotional candor. Fitted into Kaputt's elaborate compositions and fragmented storytelling, Bejar's richly connotative lyrics carry meaning—or at least a sense of meaningfulness—that's not reducible to their literal content.

At least that's the way I hear Kaputt as an admitted Destroyer fan of the non-Wiki editing variety. But where I trust Bejar enough to wander through his exercises in free-association, compositional as much as lyrical, the casual listener might wonder whether it's worth hearing another surreal paean to the lovelorn Village hipster, another muted trumpet solo, just to see what miniature revelation Bejar has saved for the end of the song. "I write poetry for myself" is one of the lines that he repeats on "Blue Eyes," and that sense of insularity may prove frustrating for those who don't already count themselves among the Destroyer faithful. That's understandable: Not only is Bejar personally committed to la vie boheme, but he tends to write songs about the type of people who have visceral aesthetic experiences reading Italian novels and listening to opera. In his shadow of North America, no one has spent a moment in the suburbs and bohemia sprawls outward to no end. It's all bound to seem ungainly and pretentious at least some of the time.

Self-referential and unabashedly cerebral, Kaputt nonetheless charms more than it alienates. It helps that Bejar is as magnanimous as his record is self-involved. Trumpet player JP Carter frequently takes the spotlight, and Vancouver-born singer Sibel Thrasher joins Bejar on a number of duets (they both turn in tremendous performances on "Downtown"). Bejar's collaborators make his urban panorama feel lived-in. They help him voice his characters and thereby remind us that Bejar's novelistic aspirations—or pretensions, if that suits you better—are rooted in a desire to tell stories about people other than himself. His ego isn't the locus of his ambitions, and I suppose that's what makes his little world so engrossing to those listeners who have dwelled in it long enough.

Label: Merge Release date: January 25, 2011

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